Recently, Glixel published an article called 50 Most Iconic Video Game Characters of the 21st Century, and I found its choices underwhelming. Granted, its writers decided to focus on characters specifically from the 21st century, which is a commendable task. But I don’t think I could do any better because I know the writers were working with what we have, and what we have are a bunch of plain-clothed characters mostly recognizable to the gaming community.
Let’s take one entry in which I do have beef with Glixel: Garrus Vakarian. Now, I love Mass Effect, and I like Garrus. I often included him in my party. But I’m not sure what makes him iconic other than I felt an emotional connection with him. He admittedly looks cool, but I don’t think the species of Mass Effect, including Garrus’, is easily distinguishable to the rest of the of population save for fans of science fiction. So, what’s the reason for including him on the list?
“Between Mass Effect and the first sequel Garrus becomes a vigilante, now calling himself Archangel. He’s been so effective at his new job that every mercenary in the galaxy is now after him, and as we meet again he's single-handedly holding off an entire army of them.”
Really? THAT’s what makes him so iconic - his ability to single-handedly take on an entire army? As opposed to every other character in a video game? I don’t even consider Shephard, sans player customization, the most iconic part of the game. There are quite a few reasons like this one in the list, and I simply don’t agree.
Do you want to know one aspect of Mass Effect that I consider to be iconic? The N7 gear. While I don’t think it’s the most impressive uniform, its design is simple and attractive, and people have even dedicated a specific day to wearing it (thanks to Bioware). If you haven’t played Mass Effect, you might still be able to recognize the hoodies when you visit a game convention or browse photos of geek culture online. That’s what I look for in an iconic character: someone with a simple design that is easily recognizable (although you can find a better definition here). Even parents who grew up without video games might recognize the Mario Bros. and Lara Croft.
That’s not to say that violence can’t help make characters iconic. Ripley from Aliens and John McClain from Die Hard have their share of fights, but they made quips that people can utter casually in conversation. So many video game characters defeat endless waves of bad guys. When you’re asking me to remember that specific scene in which Garrus is taking on a bunch of bad guys, singlehandedly or in gameplay, I can only ask, “which one?”
I don’t want to harp too much on Garrus and the rest of the list. Glixel does list plenty of legit characters who are part of games that influenced the medium. But I do think that plenty of characters, even outside of the list, are mislabled as iconic. They’re either too plain or too influenced by film to deserve that description. And even if they are designed like a Nintendo character, such as Fez (whose popularity was probably helped most by Indie Game: The Movie), they’re just too indie or small. Perhaps gaming is just too young a medium with too many derivative characters to have a full stable of truly iconic heroes.